The two numbers you need to know.

We moved offices last week and just like moving home, after almost 20 years, had accumulated a vast amount of stuff. Taking the opportunity for a proper clear out, I came across this old photograph which I guess was around 1986, about the time I became Group MD of Jackson Property Services in SE London and Kent.

Many memories came flooding back, all really good ones, and then something struck me – look at my desk! Clearly this was a posed shot, and so my workspace was a lot tidier than usual, but what stood out was the two phones. Back then I had one exclusively for outbound calls and another for inbound, and most days would be juggling two conversations at once, three if someone was in the room with me.

And then I realised what wasn’t there – not a computer to be seen unless the calculator, (mains powered with a printer attached!), qualifies.

At the time we were opening new branches every other month, expanding from 12-25 in less than three years. We were number one in just about every location but had all the recruitment and HR issues of a fast growth company. We were selling c.1,500 new homes a year and were the largest introducer of mortgage business to the L&G in the country. And all of this was managed without a single computer, not even in the accounts department. “How on earth did we do it?” I asked myself. And then I remembered how. By focussing on two numbers – and my sense is they are all you need today as well.

The whole business was effectively managed on one piece of paper, admittedly it was A3 size. Across the top were the 12 months of the year with an additional column for the carry forward from last year. The rows recorded the following:

Number of MAs
Number of Listings
Number of Applicants
Number of Viewings
Number of Offers
Number of Sales
% off rate (cancellations)
Number of c/x
Average fee
Total income

Each branch had it’s own sheet and there was one master summarising the whole business. Each week it was updated by hand with the information reported by phone, (hence the need for two on my desk!). And by looking at two numbers I could tell immediately if we were going to be on track three months hence. Number of Listings and Number of Sales. If these two were as budgeted I could sit comfortably. If not, immediate action was required.

I’m extremely envious of the MD’s today who have all this information, and much more, updated every minute and at their fingertips. But I do wonder if sometimes, some estate agency bosses might find they can’t see the wood for the trees?

Of course we looked at other things as well. We didn’t become the largest financial services introducer without paying attention to the numbers of referrals from the branches, but we didn’t allow anything to distract from the big two – listings and sales, (today I’d have the same two for lettings as well, listings and lets agreed).

When I say “immediate action” I mean “immediate”. I was taught that if you missed a month’s target for the big two then you’d hardly ever get it back. And so, weekly, (even daily when things were tough), I’d analyse these two key numbers and then call the branch managers to discuss what they were doing about it that day. Indeed, I copied something I read about Churchill, who would write “Action This Day” on a memo rather than waste time having it typed out. But mostly I called – we didn’t have email, text or any other method back then. And it was the combination of laser like focus on two things, instant identification of issues and immediate action communicated by phone, that resulted in the business being one of the most successful in the country. And if I was running an agency today, I think my desk might look very similar – although alas, the bloke behind it would be much older!

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